women's movement; suburbs; 1950's; maternal roles; career women
To counteract the potential harm vulnerable young men and women faced in a new age of postwar economic and social uncertainties, couples turned to the suburbs in unprecedented numbers as a place to raise their children in a safe and secure environment in the 1950s. Many turned to the home as an escape: a world in which they could live unaffected by the threat of nuclear war, radical politics (i.e. Communism) and more liberal definitions of female sexuality. Family was, in their minds, the one thing all Americans could rely on to be a guaranteed presence in their everyday lives. In the formation of this stable home environment, however, suburban wives and mothers were forced into roles as homemakers and family caretakers. They were supposed to see themselves as living the ideal life and feel rewarded by the benefits of consumerism and having children. Unfortunately, these women did not anticipate that their purpose in the suburban dream would lead to feelings of disillusionment and general frustration that their lives had not evolved into what they had anticipated. These images of suburban domesticity rooted in fantasy provide the background for young, married women coming to the realization that their inner desires had no place in this vision. The purpose behind my honors project was to delve into the deterioration of this ideal through the eyes of the women who were subjected to its social restrictions. I have written a fictional narrative using the short story medium as an attempt to personalize the reality of these women’s daily existence. The main character is Patty Harris, a typical housewife who finds herself living in the suburbs and taking on the role of wife and mother by age twenty-one. Her initial insecurities are suppressed by the excitement of a baby on the way and she takes comfort in the fact that her closest friends are involved in similar situations and are experiencing it simultaneously with her. As Patty becomes settled in her new marriage and home, however, she begins to feel the internal and external pressures of living up to the standards of the community. Desperately trying to salvage her faith in her domestic role, Patty wrestles with her love for her family and her growing resentment of ignoring her own needs at the expense of her husband and children’s reliance upon her. This story is a creative interpretation of a fascinating period in women’s history in the United States. It is amazing to think that so many Americans bought into the mass movement into the suburbs not only because of post-World War II prosperity but also because of shifting ideas of class. I wanted my narrative to be more than just a unique retelling of the past. The extent to which today’s wives and mothers are still faced with the decision of choosing a career versus fulfilling traditional maternal roles is still very relevant. It’s something almost every woman addresses at some point in her life. I hope that my story offers a window into the past and encourages the reader to think about how women’s place in society has changed in the last fifty years.